Long Live the Novelty Item

Graphic by author. Perfume bottles by Avon.

The age of minimalism has been found dead in a ditch.

In a pandemic prolonged by an alternatively indifferent and cruel government, many of us are stuck staring at the same walls, the same floors, and the same house plants day after day, with no end in sight. It has led a lot of people to drastically renovate their spaceinvest in home workout equipment, and embrace peel-and-stick wallpaper. Others are turning to particular aesthetics or themes, like cottagecore, to regain a sense of narrative purpose in their homes.

In my case, unique novelty items — small tchotchkes, trinkets, and knickknacks — have brought the fledgling joy I need to endure time spent in isolation. Because I don’t plan on living where I am much longer, large purchases and big DIYs are out of the question. But novelty items can pack a big emotional punch and simultaneously be packed in a carry-on at a moment’s notice.

I share this sentiment with Shalini Jethandran, a writer and illustrator, who treasures a silver seashell-shaped jewelry dish that her mom gifted her. “As someone who is frequently traveling between my parents’ place and mine, it only makes sense for me to not have beyond the necessities,” Jethandran told me. “So the jewelry holder does stand out, it’s far more flashy and visibly older than most other things I own, the general vibe of my other belongings being haphazardly-thrown-together-on-an-IKEA-trip.”

Jethandran said her jewelry dish contains more than rings or necklaces: “It’s honestly not very pretty, or remarkable visually, but it holds a lot of good memories and emotional attachment.”

I recently ran out of perfume (Philosophy’s Snow Angel), a stocking stuffer from my mom, and decided to find and commit to my very own signature scent. That hunt is ongoing, because I quickly got distracted by the world of vintage novelty perfume bottles. Unfortunately for fragrance peddlers everywhere, I’m a crow obsessed with shiny objects, not a bloodhound salivating for a certain scent.

Avon Products, founded in 1886 as what I fondly consider the first girlboss multi-level marketing scheme, began molding its glass perfume bottles into the shape of animals, cars, and home decor in the 1960s. As I scrolled through Etsy, I was entranced by one shaped like a traffic light, another resembling a grandfather clock, and a patriotic number meant to be the top of the capitol building. I saved them all to my wish list as something to buy once I had perfume to put in them. But fate intervened at a garage sale last weekend, where a woman was selling what looked like her entire Avon collection. I restrained myself and only picked out three bottles: a rotary phone, rocking horse, and majestically-perched peacock. Clutching them on the ride home, I felt the first flash of unadulterated delight fire across my brain since last March.

The application of the term “novelty item” in here is quite…loosey goosey. My inability to properly categorize anything makes it hard to believe a scientist raised me. When I gush about novelty items, I’m referring to literally any object that fits in the surreal cabinet of curiosities floating in my mind: the hamburger phone in Juno (2007), this lip balm shaped like a crayon, and Marco de Vincenzo’s SS 2019 handbags that make it look like you’re hauling around an entire aquarium. I do openly and eagerly reject blatantly-branded novelty items from this inanimate menagerie — there is no room here for vintage Coca-Cola signs or Star Wars coffee mugs. But for the most part it’s like, “Get in loser, we’re going kitsch!”

Screenshot of a tweet with some words replaced by my own. It now reads, "We get it novelty items: things are shaped like other things"
My play on a tweet about poetry by Mike Ginn.

I also chatted with Jae Taurina Thomas, my fellow blogger at The Interlude, about the ways novelty can improve the everyday. She owns a dumpling-shaped diffuser from Smoko. And get this: his name is Dumpling!! I think I said “awwww” out loud to myself when I learned this. A diffuser helps keep your space smelling nice and from drying out in the winter, and it doesn’t have to look cold and clinical.

“I have a soft spot for anything cute and round with a little happy face on it,” Jae told me. She considers Dumpling “part of our little home family” and says he brightens up her apartment. “My home decor aesthetic is desert-toned neutrals with lots of earthy accents like wood, terracotta, and tons of plants. Dumpling fits in in terms of color scheme, but stands out in design. I like to think he brings a little but of quirk to my otherwise earthy space.”

On the left is Shalini Jethandran’s jewelry dish, and on the right is Jae Thomas’ diffuser named Dumpling!

Quirk has certainly made a comeback. We are living in a new age of maximalism, as Rebecca Jennings masterfully explained in Vox last October. One in which oddball home decor, velvet couches, and intricate family heirlooms clutter our spaces in a good way. It’s a rejection of the highbrow minimalism that consumed the 2010s and reimagines our spaces as vessels for self-expression, not conformity or an ill-fated conquering of materialism. Novel, or maximalist, design pushes objects like cookie jars and purses beyond their primary function and towards a new usefulness: delight.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with novelty items. It probably has something to do with socioeconomic class — I’ve often assembled my living spaces from furniture and decor found abandoned on apartment stoops, left in the trash room on move-out day when I was a resident assistant, or in Facebook beg/barter groups. Embracing eccentricity was affordable. Nowadays, as I pine for financial stability and widespread vaccination, my newly acquired perfume bottles are tangible promises for that future, one where I live in a studio apartment with a rickety vanity that holds them as dearly as I do.

This essay is part of a series called Fashion IS Function, where I write about the necessity of style and design in keeping misery at bay. It draws inspiration from the late fashion historian Bill Cunningham who said, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” If you have an idea for FIF, reach out to me on Twitter.

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